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Why Testing Can Slow The Spread Of The Coronavirus

LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

Countries that are capably dealing with the coronavirus made testing central to their plans. America is woefully behind, and there is now a debate unfolding here at the moment to test or not to test.

Dr. Ashish Jha directs Harvard University's Global Health Institute, and he joins us now. Good morning.

ASHISH JHA: Good morning. Thanks for having me.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: You're pretty clear on this. You say test. Without widespread testing for COVID-19, we're making public health decisions with blindfolds on, you say. Explain why.

JHA: Yeah, absolutely. So look. There are people who think testing is not enough, and I agree with that. We need to be doing much more than just testing. But without testing, we don't know who has it, who doesn't. We don't know who's spreading it. We don't know which communities have high disease burden versus low disease burden. We are blindfolded, and I'd like to take the blindfolds off so we can fight this battle with our eyes wide open.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: But we're hearing state and local governments saying that we can't test, that please stay home even if you're mildly sick because we just don't have the capacity.

JHA: Yeah, so we're ramping up on this, right? So we did - yesterday, our best estimate is that we did about 40,000 tests across the United States. We should probably be doing two to three times that, if not more. So while we're ramping up and making progress, we're still far behind. And so what I'm hearing from doctors and public health officials across the country is that we're still rationing tests and trying to figure out who we can test and who we just don't have the tests to identify.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So tell us where we are with the testing. We're hearing all sorts of different things about new tests that may be coming that are quicker, more rapid that'll be able to ramp this up. Where are we with that?

JHA: Yes. So look. There's a ton of innovation happening. A lot of people are working very, very hard. I think we got slowed down for weeks and actually months because the federal government didn't take this seriously. And then if you remember three weeks ago, Vice President Pence said there are millions of test kits going out. And so I think everybody said, well, the federal government has it.

I think we've now come to realize that the federal government isn't going to be the savior here. And so lot of companies and a lot of labs are getting these things going. I'm tracking what's happening on the front lines. And what I'm seeing is progress, but we're still far from where we need to be.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I mean, I certainly have people in my circle who have been ill and have been unable to get a test, and I'm sure that you've heard similar stories. And there's an enormous amount of frustration.

JHA: Yeah. You know, I actually - I'm talking to friends, physicians who are - who have sick patients in hospitals that they can't test, or those tests are taking a long time. I do think we're going to be in a better shape in the next seven to 10 days. But boy, this has been slow. And it hasn't - we haven't been anywhere near where we want to be.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Can you please explain why? You've just said that there has been no leadership on the federal level. Should there have been?

JHA: Oh, my goodness. Look. We knew two months ago this pandemic was coming. Everybody knew. The entire public health community knew. The federal government knew that this pandemic was coming. And there has been one mistake after another after another.

And then in the last three, four weeks, as everybody has realized we're behind the eight ball on testing, overly rosy scenarios of millions of test kits on their way have actually done more harm than good because what they've done is told local labs and state labs, hey, you don't have to work on this 'cause the federal government has it. And I think in the last 10 days, people have come to realize that if we're going to get testing really ramped up across the country, local and state officials and private sector's going to have to do it. This is not going to be a federal response.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I just want to ask you in our last minute or so what you would advise to someone who has symptoms at this point. Should they go and try and get a test, or should they stay home?

JHA: I think if you - unless you are very, very sick, unless you're having serious problems with breathing, you really - you should contact your doctor. You probably cannot get a test. So there are some areas of America where testing is becoming more readily available. And you should stay away from others, and you should self-quarantine.

And again, most people will get better from this, right? Eighty percent of people will not end up needing any serious medical intervention. But obviously, if you get sicker, you have to contact your doctor. And you have to go in and get tested and taken care of.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And will people know when these tests will finally be available? I mean, when will they understand that they can actually be mass testing?

JHA: Yeah. So again, I said I'm hopeful that we're - I don't know - 10 days, two weeks away from where we need to be. Every day is getting better, and I think we just have to keep informing the public of where we are and how far away we are from where we need to be.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Dr. Ashish Jha is the director of Harvard University's Global Health Institute.

Thank you.

JHA: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.